Lena Horne photographed
by Carl Van Vechten, 1941
Lena Mary Calhoun Horne ((June 30, 1917 – May 9, 2010), was an iconic American singer and actress. She has recorded and performed extensively, independently and with other jazz notables, including Artie Shaw, Teddy Wilson, Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Barnet. She currently lives in New York City and no longer makes public appearances.
Lena Horne was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York. She grew up in an upper middle class black community. Her father, Edwin "Teddy" Horne, who worked in the gambling trade, left the family when she was three. Her mother, Edna Scottron, was the daughter of inventor Samuel R. Scottron; she was an actress with an African American theater troupe and traveled extensively. Horne was mainly raised by her grandparents, Cora Calhoun and Edwin Horne. Her uncle, Frank S. Horne, was an adviser to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She is a reported descendant of the John C. Calhoun family.
Learn more about Lena Horne, and see her perform, at lena-horne.com.
In the fall of 1933, Lena Horne joined the chorus line of the Cotton Club in New York City. In the spring of 1934, she had a featured role in the Cotton Club Parade. A few years later she joined Noble Sissle's Orchestra and toured with this orchestra. After she separated from her first husband, Lena Horne toured with bandleader Charlie Barnet in 1940-41, but disliked the travel and left the band to work at the Cafe Society in New York. She replaced Dinah Shore as the featured vocalist on NBC's popular jazz series The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. The show's resident maestros, Henry Levine and Paul Laval, recorded with Horne in June of 1941 for RCA Victor. Horne left the show after only six months to headline a nightclub revue on the west coast; she was replaced by Linda Keene.
Lena Horne already had two low-budget movies to her credit: a 1938 musical feature called The Duke is Tops (later reissued with Horne's name above the title as The Bronze Venus); and a 1941 two-reel short subject, Boogie Woogie Dream, featuring pianists Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons. Horne's songs from Boogie Woogie Dream were later released individually as Soundies. Horne was primarily a nightclub performer during this period, and it was during a 1942 club engagement in Hollywood that talent scouts approached Horne to work in pictures. She chose Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the most prestigious studio in the world, and became the first African American performer to sign a long-term contract with a major Hollywood studio.
She made her debut with MGM in 1942's Panama Hattie and became famous in 1943 for her rendition of "Stormy Weather" in the movie of the same name (which she made at 20th Century Fox, on loan from MGM). She appeared in a number of MGM musicals, most notably Cabin in the Sky (also 1943), but was never featured in a leading role due to her race and the fact that films featuring her had to be reedited for showing in southern states where theaters could not show films with African American performers. As a result, most of Horne's film appearances were stand-alone sequences that had no bearing on the rest of the film, so editing caused no disruption to the storyline; a notable exception was the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky, though even then one of her numbers had to be cut because it was considered too suggestive by the censors. In Ziegfeld Follies (1946) she performs "Love" by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.
She was originally considered for the role of Julie LaVerne in MGM's 1951 version of Show Boat (having already played the role when a segment of Show Boat was performed in Till the Clouds Roll By) but Ava Gardner was given the role instead (the production code office had banned interracial relationships in films). In the documentary That's Entertainment! III Horne stated that MGM executives required Gardner to practice her singing using recordings of Horne performing the songs, which offended both actresses (ultimately, Gardner ended up having her singing voice overdubbed by another actress (Annette Warren (Smith)) for the theatrical release, though her own voice was heard on the soundtrack album).
Changes of direction
By the mid-1950s, Horne was disenchanted with Hollywood and increasingly focused on her nightclub career. She only made two major appearances in MGM films during the decade, 1950's Duchess of Idaho (which was also Eleanor Powell's film swan song), and the 1956 musical Meet Me in Las Vegas. She was blacklisted during the 1950s for her political views. She returned to the screen three more times, playing chanteuse Claire Quintana in the 1969 film Death of a Gunfighter, Glinda in The Wiz (1978), and co-hosting the 1994 MGM retrospective That's Entertainment! III, in which she was candid about her treatment by the studio. In her later years, Horne also made occasional television appearances - generally as herself - on such programs as The Muppet Show (where she sang with Kermit the Frog) and Sanford and Son in the 1970s, as well as a 1985 performance on The Cosby Show and a 1993 appearance on A Different World.
She appeared in Broadway musicals several times and in 1958 was nominated for the Tony Award for "Best Actress in a Musical" (for her part in the "Calypso" musical Jamaica) In 1981 she received a Special Tony Award for her one-woman show, Lena Horne: "The Lady and Her Music". Despite the show's considerable success (Horne still holds the record for the longest-running solo performance in Broadway history), she was not inclined to capitalize on the renewed interest in her career by undertaking many new musical projects. A proposed 1983 joint recording project between Horne and Frank Sinatra (to be produced by Quincy Jones) was ultimately abandoned, and her sole studio recording of the decade was 1988's The Men In My Life, featuring duets with Sammy Davis, Jr. and Joe Williams. In 1989, she received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
The 1990s found Horne considerably more active in the recording studio - all the more remarkable considering she was approaching her 80th year. Following her 1993 performance at a tribute to the musical legacy of her good friend Billy Strayhorn (Duke Ellington's longtime pianist and arranger), she decided to record an album largely comprised of Strayhorn's and Ellington's songs the following year, We'll Be Together Again. To coincide with the release of the album, Horne made what would be her final concert performances at New York's Supper Club and Carnegie Hall. That same year, Horne also lent her vocals to a recording of "Embraceable You" on Sinatra's "Duets II" album. Though the album was largely derided by critics, the Sinatra-Horne pairing was generally regarded as its highlight. In 1995, a "live" album capturing her Supper Club performance was released (subsequently winning a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album). In 1998, at the age of 81, Horne released another studio album, entitled Being Myself. Thereafter, Horne essentially retired from performing and largely retreated from public view, though she did return to the recording studio in 2000 to contribute vocal tracks on Simon Rattle's Classic Ellington album.
Civil Rights activism
Horne also is noteworthy for her contributions to the Civil Rights movement. In 1941, she sang at Cafe Society and worked with Paul Robeson, a singer who also combated American racial discrimination. During World War II, when entertaining the troops for the USO, she refused to perform "for segregated audiences or to groups in which German POWs were seated in front of African American servicemen" , according to her Kennedy Center biography. She was at an NAACP rally with Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi the weekend before Evers was assassinated. She was at the March on Washington and spoke and performed in behalf of the NAACP, SNCC and the National Council for Negro Women. She also worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to pass anti-lynching laws.
Tributes and rereleases
In 2003, ABC announced that Janet Jackson would star as Horne in a television biopic (after it was rumored for years that Whitney Houston would take the job). In the weeks following Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" debacle during the 2004 Super Bowl, however, Variety reported that Horne demanded Jackson be dropped from the project. "ABC executives resisted Horne's demand," according to the Associated Press report, "but Jackson representatives told the trade newspaper that she left willingly after Horne and her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, asked that she not take part." Oprah Winfrey stated to Alicia Keys during a 2005 interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show that she might possibly consider producing the biopic herself, casting Keys as Horne.
In January 2005, Blue Note Records, her label for more than a decade, announced that "the finishing touches have been put on a collection of rare and unreleased recordings by the legendary Horne made during her time on Blue Note. Remixed by her longtime producer Rodney Jones, the recordings featured Horne in remarkably secure voice for a woman of her years, and include versions of such signature songs as 'Something To Live For', 'Chelsea Bridge' and 'Stormy Weather'." The album, originally titled Soul but renamed Seasons of a Life, was released on January 24, 2006.
In 2007, Horne was portrayed by Leslie Uggams in the stage musical, "Stormy Weather," which will play at the Pasadena Playhouse in California in January and February of 2009.
Horne married Louis Jordan Jones in January 1937 and they lived in Pittsburgh. In December 1937 they had a daughter, Gail and in February 1940, a son, Edwin. Horne and Jones separated in 1940 and they divorced in 1944.
Lena Horne's second marriage was to Lennie Hayton, a Jewish American, from December 1947 until his death in 1971. Hayton was one of the premier musical conductors and arrangers at MGM. In her as-told-to autobiography Lena by Richard Schickel, Horne recounts the enormous pressures she and her husband faced as an interracial married couple. However, she later admitted (Ebony, May 1980) that she really married Hayton to advance her career and cross the "color-line" in show business.
Horne is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated.
Lena Horne died on May 9, 2010, at the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City of heart failure, according to her daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by granddaughters Jenny and Amy Lumet, Lena Jones, and grandsons, William and Thomas Jones. On May 14, 2010, Horne's funeral took place at St. Ignatius Loyola Church on Park Avenue in New York City. Thousands gathered to mourn her, including singers Leontyne Price, Dionne Warwick, Jessye Norman, Chita Rivera and actresses Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Lauren Bacall, Audra McDonald and Vanessa L. Williams. Horne was laid to rest in the Horne Family Plot at The Evergreen's Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY.